Does Your Child Have Camp Complaints?

Jenna's mom paid a significant amount of money for Jenna to attend day camp. Jenna was enthusiastic, but also anxious. The night before camp began, she started complaining of a stomach ache. She is so nervous each morning that she begins hysterically crying and throws up.

Max's dad thought a sports camp would be just the thing. He often said that Max was born with a baseball bat in his hand. Yet now that camp has begun, Max becomes hysterical about a half hour before the bus comes. So far, Dad has been able to coerce him on to the bus, but wonders if he's doing the right thing.

Each year parents in New York pay thousands of dollars to send their children to camp. Most children go willingly and happily. Others, like Jenna and Max, experience anxiety and distress. Some refuse to go, some exhibit physical symptoms like stomach pain or headaches, others become morose and withdrawn. With thousands of dollars at stake, or with no place else to put your child during the summer when you work, what should you do? Fortunately there are solutions.

If camp hasn't yet begun for your child then you have a wonderful opportunity to do a little sleuth work. Engage him in talking about camp and watch for his reactions to your discussion. You may see evidence of nervousness or doubt if you pay close attention. While you don't want to anticipate those feelings, if you can see them in advance, you can help your child deal with them prior to camp beginning which leads to a happier camp experience. Remember that when you talk about camp with your child, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind.

* Don't exhibit an overly enthusiastic attitude. Saying "Wow! Camp is coming. It's going to be GREAT, you're going to LOVE IT!" more often has a negative impact than a positive one. First of all, if your child is feeling a little anxious, it's unlikely that he'll feel comfortable telling you about his feelings if he believes that you think it's going to be WONDERFUL. Instead, when you do talk about camp, keep it casual and watch closely to determine how your words impact your child. Saying something like "Only a couple more days until camp begins" or "So have you thought about which activities you'll be interested in at camp this time?" are ways to engage your child in a non-directive manner. Remember that the experience of camp, like all experiences, is sometimes mixed. There may be positives and negatives. Implying that it's going to be terrific is misleading and if your child should have negative feelings he might feel like something is wrong with him rather than accepting all of his feelings as being normal.

* Listening is more important than talking. Children give us all kinds of clues as to the way they're feeling or what they're thinking. The more we keep our mouths closed and truly listen, the more likely we are to get the real story. Remember Stephen Covey's famous quote: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Listening means putting our agenda, our desires, and our wishes aside and hearing the truth in our children's words.

If camp has already begun for your child, and she's resistant or worried, the ideal time to deal with those feelings is either in the afternoon or evening. Trying to listen to and brainstorm solutions with a child who is having big feelings right before a day at camp is more often than not a losing proposition. Following these simple steps may help your child feel less nervous or upset.

* Listen to your child. (Sound familiar?) As you listen in the way Stephen Covey describes, pay close attention to feelings. When you recognize a feeling your child is having (even the positive ones!) acknowledge that feeling. Saying "You seem worried" or "I see you're upset" allows your child to release those feelings and free herself from them. Avoid the temptation of denying your child's feelings: don't say things like "There's nothing to be nervous about" or "You don't have to be upset, camp is fun." Denying feelings cuts off communication with your child, and doesn't allow for solutions to develop.

* Brainstorm solutions with your child. This does NOT mean giving your child advice, like "Why don't we see if you can sit next to Suzy on the bus, that'll make you feel better." As parents, the solutions that may seem helpful to us are not necessarily helpful to our children. It's far better to ask your child "What do you think you might be able to do about this?" Framed in this manner, your child then has the opportunity to either be more forthcoming about the issue at hand or to "own" a solution. Should your child be negative and say there's nothing she can do, offer advice in question form: "What do you think would happen if you...." Some successful solutions other parents have offered in this manner include letting their child take a picture of the family with them to camp, giving the child something belonging to Mom or Dad that they can keep in their camp bag, or writing a note that their child can read at camp.

* Give your child relaxation techniques. One mother successfully taught her son some basic relaxation techniques. She asked him to concentrate on his breathing in bed at night, saying "Breathe in purple, breathe out blue. Now breathe in yellow, breathe out red." Attaching words to the rhythm of breathing gave her son something to focus on when he actually experienced distress over getting on the bus the next day. A father told his daughter that when she got nervous she could always "rub the magic lamp." This consisted of the child rubbing the palms of her hands together slowly. These simple techniques got these children over their nervousness and distress.

* Talk to the camp. Remember than most camp directors are trained to handle just this type of difficulty and may have some wonderful "tried and true" solutions other than the ones mentioned in this article. In addition, speaking to the director or even the camp counselor may provide you with further insight as to why your child is experiencing difficulty. Often, the solution is simpler than we might imagine, and will lead to your child having a successful and happy camp experience.